While the recent trumpet sound from Cardinal Sarah has inspired many priests to move towards ad orientem worship, perhaps now would also be a fitting time to discuss another of the liturgical points which had been made so well by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI – namely, the silent Canon in which the priest prays the Eucharistic Prayer in a quiet voice which is not heard by the people.
"In 1978, to the annoyance of many liturgists, I said that in no sense does the whole Canon always have to be said out loud. [...] The Eucharistic Prayer, the high point of the Mass, is in crisis. Since the reform of the liturgy, an attempt has been made to meet the crisis by incessantly inventing new Eucharistic Prayers, and in the process we have sunk farther and farther into banality. Multiplying words is no help – that is all too evident. [...] silence, too, silence especially, might constitute communion before God." (Spirit of the Liturgy, part 4, chapter 2)
The Silent Canon prior to Vatican II
In the more than 1,000 years prior to the Second Vatican Council, the Eucharistic Prayer was said in a quiet voice in the Latin Church – so as to create silence at that highest moment of the Mass. The liturgical directives specified that the priest would say these prayers in this quiet tone.
It was common at a sung Mass that the Sanctus hymn would continue as the priest began to pray the silent canon (having himself spoken the Sanctus). In many places, where more elaborate Mass settings were used, it was not uncommon that the second half of the Sanctus (i.e. the Benedictus) would even be delayed until after the consecration! Thus, both "halves" of the Eucharistic Prayer would sometimes have music sung over the silent praying of the Roman Canon (aka Eucharistic Prayer I).
In low Masses without music, the whole Canon was silent, and the people were left in that contemplative quiet as the miracle of transubstantion was accomplished.
After the Second Vatican Council
After Vatican II, the silent Canon (or quieter Eucharistic Prayer) almost entirely disappeared. This is surprising, since no document from the Council, nor any subsequent legislation from the Church ever indicated that the Eucharistic Prayer had to be said out loud.
Many times, critics of the silent Canon will state that the GIRM rejects this option in paragraph 32: “The nature of the ‘presidential’ parts requires that they be spoken in a loud and clear voice and that everyone listen to them attentively.”
This paragraph is read in light of GIRM 30: “Among those things assigned to the Priest, the prime place is occupied by the Eucharistic Prayer, which is the high point of the whole celebration. Next are the orations, that is to say, the Collect, the Prayer over the Offerings, and the prayer after Communion. These prayers [...] are rightly called the ‘presidential prayers.’”
However, there is no place in the GIRM where the Eucharistic Prayer is listed as a “presidential prayer”, nor has the Eucharistic Prayer ever been understood as a “presidential prayer” in the Church's tradition. Even GIRM 30 does not specify that the Eucharistic Prayer is presidential, but that the Orations (Collect, Prayer over the Offerings, and post Communion) are the presidential prayers.
Therefore, GIRM 32 cannot be interpreted as stating that the Eucharistic Prayer is to be offered in an audible voice. This is precisely why Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger insisted that the Eucharistic Prayer may be prayed silently, and highlighted this point again as Pope when a number of his books on the liturgy were published in German in a single edition. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is the only pope to have addressed this issue (albeit, in his personal theological writings), and he maintains that the Eucharistic Prayer may be prayed silently.
We further note that, although the Eucharistic Prayer is said by the priest alone, this does not make it a presidential prayer. Indeed, there are many other silent prayers of the Mass that are said by the priest alone and are not “presidential” in nature. An example: The prayer at commingling which is clearly for both the priest and the people is still not presidential and is said silently.
The Eucharistic Prayer CAN'T Be A Presidential Prayer
We further stress that the Eucharistic Prayer cannot possibly be a presidential prayer, since GIRM 108 states that “one and the same priest celebrant must always exercise the presidential office in all of its parts.” In other words, the celebrant who presides over the Mass, says all the “presidential prayers” himself – thus, the opening prayer and prayer over the gifts and post-communion prayer are not shared among the concelebrants. However, the Eucharistic Prayer is, of course, properly shared with the concelebrants. This indicates that the Eucharist Prayer is not a presidential prayer (else it could not be shared by the concelebrants). And, since the Eucharistic Prayer is not a presidential prayer, it need not be said out loud.
For sake of completeness, we mention one other argument given in opposition to the silent Canon. GIRM 78 states that “the Eucharistic Prayer requires that everybody listen to it with reverence and in silence.” Some will maintain that, since the people are meant to listen to the prayer, the Canon is not permitted to be said silently.
To make an argument about how the priest is supposed to offer Mass based on a single line from the GIRM which is not even addressed to the priest but rather to the faithful is dubious at best. We reply that it is clearly the intent of the GIRM in this paragraph not to insist that the Canon be said out loud, but rather that the people NOT be speaking out loud. In other words, this portion of the GIRM emphasizes that silence is MOST FITTING to the Eucharistic Prayer – emphasizing that the people should adopt a spirit of silence at this moment of the Mass. To use a paragraph calling for silence as a way to insist upon more noise is to do violence to the document itself.
In any case, Pope Benedict XVI knew the GIRM well, and he continued to affirm that the Eucharistic Prayer can and should be said in a quiet voice. Perhaps the best way to assist the people in their silent reverence during the Eucharistic Prayer would be for the priest to adopt this same reverential silence as he offers the Canon of the Mass.
Why the Silent Canon?
But why would we want to pray the Eucharistic Prayer in a quiet voice anyways? Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI offers one answer: “Anyone who has experienced a church united in the silent praying of the Canon will know what a truly filled silence is. It is at once a loud and penetrating cry to God and a Spirit-filled act of prayer. Here everyone does pray the Canon together, albeit in a bond with the special task of the priestly ministry. Here everyone is united, laid hold of by Christ, and led by the Holy Spirit into that common prayer to the Father which is the true sacrifice – the love that reconciles and unites God and the world.” (Spirit of the Liturgy, part 4, chapter 2)
Even as ad orientem worship unites the priest and people in a common act of adoration of God, the silent Canon unites us all in the true sacrifice being offered. The silent Canon, perhaps even more than ad orientem, drives home the sacrificial nature of the Mass and offers that most needed corrective to modern liturgies which focus more on communication than prayer, and ultimately are reduced to banal chatter between the priest and the people.
The silent Canon also reminds us that the greatest mysteries are accomplished in silence. For nine months, Christ was silent in his Mother’s immaculate womb, destined to be born in the stillness of a quiet cave. Silent in his death, the night itself was hushed with quiet when he rose from the grave. Returning in glory on the last day, he will fulfill those words as he puts all the world to silence: “Be still and see that I am God.” (Psalm 45:11)
Man adores the Lord in silence. And, as Mother Teresa would remind us, “In the silence of the heart, God speaks.” The Eucharistic Prayer is the heart of the Mass – silence here will open our souls to the voice of our Heavenly Father.
Having transitioned my parish to the silent Canon a year ago, I can testify that there is a profound peace and harmony which only silence can bring to the life of a parish. I pray that my brother priests will take up the call of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, as the silent Canon is so complimentary to ad orientem worship which, in a real sense, it completes.